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2018 Week 12 MAC Preview: Western Michigan Broncos @ Ball State Cardinals

Broncos must avoid complete late-season collapse in Muncie.

Western Michigan v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Western Michigan is still alive in the MAC title race, but the Broncos will need plenty of help. The team will have to rely on the Northern Illinois Huskies to lose both of their remaining games to close the season: a home game versus Miami (OH) and a road game at none other than Western Michigan.

But first, the Broncos have to snap their own two-game losing streak and take care of business in Muncie.

A 1-1 start with an 8-point road loss to Notre Dame brought promise to this Ball State season. But for the fifth-straight year, the Cardinals suffered the inevitable collapse in conference play and missed bowl eligibility. Mike Neu’s team won two of its first three MAC games, but the Cardinals have failed to even look competitive recently. Ball State’s last three losses have been decided by a combined 92 points (-30.7-point margin per game).

Things aren’t looking better, either. Riley Neal, the team’s primary starter since 2015, suffered yet another injury. After missing the final nine games of 2017, Neal is potentially out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. This brings sophomore Drew Plitt into the lineup once again.

Plitt threw for a career-high 340 yards in the Cardinals’ most recent performance, a 45-13 loss at Toledo. In this contest, the Loveland, OH native completed one touchdown pass to wide receiver Riley Miller and contributed two interceptions (in an overall disastrous game that featured 10 total turnovers). Since arriving in the huddle in relief for Neal, Plitt has taken six sacks, highlighting Ball State’s ongoing offensive line struggles.

Western Michigan can relate, however. On the same exact night Neal was lost, the Broncos’ starting quarterback Jon Wassink suffered a season-ending right foot injury on a scramble to the sideline in the first quarter. True freshman backup Kaleb Eleby checked in and delivered in a marvelous debut (23/28, 293 yards, 2 touchdowns).

A harsh reality caught up to the young quarterback when facing Ohio in Kalamazoo though. His completion percentage dropped about 30% points from his first game to his second and he threw two interceptions. But with Eleby in the backfield, Western Michigan’s greatest issue has been allowing pressure to get to him. Center John Keenoy has held his own on the offensive line, but the team is clearly lacking the star tackles like Taylor Moton, Chukwuma Okorafor, and Willie Beavers that the offensive line has enjoyed in recent memory. Eleby has taken seven sacks in two games, while Wassink was only brought down four times in his first eight starts of the season.

When two backup quarterbacks are battling it out, teams often give more precedence to the running game.

Ball State’s ground game has featured a myriad of backs this year. James Gilbert, who dazzled America with a 1,300 yard season in 2015, will see action in Tuesday night’s game but is expected to line up third in the depth chart, according to Ryan O’Gara of the Star Press. This should allow running backs Will Jones and Malik Dunner to earn the majority of carries. However, the rushing game has been a disappointment in Muncie this year. Since Gilbert’s 100-yard game against FCS foe Central Connecticut in Week 1, no Cardinal running back has sniffed the century mark.

Even though Western Michigan’s offense has been dormant lately, the Broncos are still equipped with the conference’s leading rusher. LeVante Bellamy is 29th in the FBS with 907 rushing yards. In the Broncos’ last two blowout losses, the senior has been limited to a combined 86 yards on 18 attempts. Bellamy has posted at least 120 yards on every FBS opponent of three wins or fewer this year, and Ball State certainly fits the category. The Cardinals’ 112th ranked rushing defense allows over 215 yards per game.

Opposing offenses haven’t been kind to Western Michigan’s defense lately. The Broncos yielded 935 total yards, 110 points, and created zero turnovers in lopsided losses to Toledo and Ohio. Both games, with 27 and 45 point margins respectively, transpired on the Broncos’ own turf of Waldo Stadium. Western Michigan’s last loss was particularly a deflating one, as the Broncos entered halftime with a 45-0 deficit to Ohio. The team’s bye week in Week 11 was long awaited and arrived at a perfect time. Now, it’s all about the recovery effort on the road at Ball State.

This Tuesday will go down as Senior Day for the Ball State crowd in Muncie. The Cardinals have a relatively young team, but several players including wide receiver Corey Lacanaria and outside linebacker Jeremiah Jackson will play their final game at Scheumann Stadium.

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Tuesday, November 13 — 6 p.m. ET
  • Venue: Scheumann Stadium — Muncie, IN
  • Network: ESPN2
  • Spread: Western Michigan (-7.5)
  • ESPN FPI Predictor: Western Michigan has 66.7% chance to win
  • All-time series: Western Michigan leads, 25-19

The Broncos have won four-straight over the Cardinals in this MAC West matchup. Western Michigan has been particularly unkind to outmatched Ball State teams lately, winning the last three with scores of 54-7, 52-20, and 55-3. Ball State hasn’t come out on top since the peak of the Pete Lembo era in 2013. The Cardinals claimed their last victory in Muncie in 2012, the season before P.J. Fleck arrived in Kalamazoo. Last season’s 55-3 slaughter is the largest blowout the series has ever seen, slightly breaking the record from 2015’s 54-7 result.

Prediction

Western Michigan needed that bye week after two consecutive weekday no-shows in Kalamazoo. Now, it’s time for Kaleb Eleby to revert this team back to its ways of October.

The Broncos seem to take care of easier competition with no hassle. Western Michigan is 4-0 against FBS opponents with losing records this season, and Ball State (3-7) fits perfectly into the category. Both teams are in periods of major struggle right now, serving as victims to late October and early November blowouts.

The x-factor in this game is going to be the Western Michigan running backs. LeVante Bellamy posted 145 yards each on struggling Bowling Green and Central Michigan programs. After several down weeks, he needs to burst back onto the scene to take pressure off of Eleby.

For Eleby, it’s about connecting on screen passes, especially to his favorite target in Jayden Reed. There’s no need to go down field often and risk turnovers, especially after a 6-turnover performance against Ohio. Play safe, play conservative, and the talent should take care of an injury-riddled Cardinals team in the midst of another disastrous finish.

Prediction: Western Michigan 31, Ball State 23